Written by Nelson Chege.
On the night of December 21, 2018, Carilton David Maina, a student at Leeds University, was fatally shot by police in Laini Saba, Kibra as he walked home from a football game[i]. The almost immediate societal uproar that followed Carliton’s death exposed many other veiled cases of wanton and unnecessary killings by the Kenyan police. Instances of police brutality and extrajudicial killings have been rampant and relentless. A 2020 report by a coalition of Kenyan human rights groups reveals that the police killed 107 people in the year 2019[ii]. A majority of these being from Nairobi’s low-income areas and with no demonstrable criminal indulgence[iii].
The year 2020 has brought the world unprecedented challenges, most of which are intertwined with the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments attempt to stop the human to human transmission of this virus, draconian measures have been taken up. Kenya has, for instance, called for a nationwide dusk to dawn curfew and placed some regions on complete lockdown. Enforcing these measures has, however, placed the populace at an even graver disservice than the actual virus, it would appear.
Since these measures were announced, acts akin to the militarization of the police have been apparent. People have been maimed, killed and others displaced from their homes as law enforcement agents discharge their duties[iv]. The death of 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo who was shot by a “stray bullet” as police officers enforced the newly announced curfew is one such instance[v]. Yassin met his death as he played on his balcony, oblivious of the trigger-happy officers marching below him. All this has further exemplified that Kenya doesn’t suffer from isolated cases of rogue officers but rather, a rot so deeply seated in Kenya’s criminal justice and policing system that only the most extreme of measures will bring meaningful resolve.
A Colonial Construct
In 2016, the body of Willie Kimani, a lawyer representing a victim of police brutality, was found at a riverbank of Athi River in the Ol-Donyo Sabuk area[vi]. Four police officers were eventually arrested and charged with his murder and that of the two others who had accompanied him on the day of his demise[vii]. The thoughtless and tactless manner the murder was carried out shows an obvious disconnect between the police and civilians in the country. The history of the Kenyan Police force could potentially, adequately explain the inane actions of these law enforcement agents today.
Kenya’s policing body was established as a British Colonial Force in 1907; made up of mostly British and Indian recruits, tasked with controlling and ensuring the submissiveness of Africans[viii]. The policing model adopted was, therefore, meant to instill fear and oppress the African civilian and dispel dissent and uprisings. After the country gained independence, British officers were replaced by local Kenyan officers. Even after independence, however, white police reservists, like Patrick Shaw rained terror on Kenyans. Shaw was a white settler infamous for his vicious approach to crime suspects and many cases of extrajudicial killings, till his death in 1988[ix]
The Kenyan National Police Service is made up of three divisions; Kenya Police Service, the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, and the Administration Police. The biggest conundrum lies with the latter, an entity established in 1958 and designed to repress the independence movement that was spreading across Kenya. The Administration Police took over from the Tribal police that has been established through an ordinance in 1929. This entity had especially, placed loyalist Africans in a position to punish social-political dissents and ensure the furtherance of colonization[x].
The adoption of the Administration Police in a post-colonial modern-day society, therefore, completely lacks merit and piggybacks on the constructs of oppression of Africans within their land. Section 27 of the National Police Service Act, 2011 outlines extensive functions to the Administration Police, amongst them; maintaining law and order and preserving peace. Conversely, the original harsh and unpredictable paramilitary tactics of this police body as outlined in Caroline Eskin’s Britain’s Gulag can still be seen in today’s operations; completely negating the functions outlined in the 2011 National Police Service Act[xi]. The obliviousness to the principle of proportionality in the dispensation of policing duties has led to a frayed relationship between the police and the general populace where the people are maimed and killed without judicious reason.
The entanglement of Kenyan law enforcement and local politics has shown how political dissent and population control, both constructs of colonialism, are still being used to the advantage of the ruling elite and how the policing bodies have remained complicit to the torture and intimidation of the common citizenry[xii].
Kenya does not lack in policy reform ideas. The National Police Service is actually in the midst of an ambitious reform program meant to overhaul its structure and eliminate every shortcoming perpetuating impunity in service delivery[xiii]. Accusations of vile human rights violations as seen during the 2007-2008 post-election violence motivated an urgency in the implementation of such reforms. From prioritization of new standards of conduct to the establishment of an independent police oversight authority; Kenya seems to have an inner will to repair the rot within the police service.
Despite all of this, decades of such reform attempts appear to hardly yield change. Just this week, Kenyan social media has been awash with calls for #JusticeforSamuelMaina, a man allegedly maimed and robbed by police officers for being outside, a few minutes after 7 pm (the official start of the dusk to dawn curfew hours)[xiv] Even before the public could come to terms with this particular barbaric act, reports of the killing of a homeless man in Nairobi’s Mathare settlement on the night of June 1st (Madaraka day) have sparked fresh outrage across social media[xv]. Clearly, the blueprint for police reforms is not being implemented and the rogue Kenyan police are still running amok.
Instances of police brutality even seem to be getting worse after the implementation of these policy reforms, showing that the problem lies in systemic inadequacies and a modus operandi cultivated on impunity, violence, and misconduct. To properly transform the security and justice center, drastic measures have to be taken and decolonization and abolishment of the Administration Police have to be at the top of this list.
Police brutality and extrajudicial killings are not unique to Kenya. The United States for instance, is facing a momentous social upheaval following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota Police Department[xvi]. We are living in a social media epoch where the people are able to immediately expose and react to acts of impunity by those in law enforcement. Clearly, the age of dissipated outrage and a short attention span by the citizenry is coming to an end. Implementable and long-lasting measures need to be taken to resolve the issues faced in policing within Kenya and beyond. For the former, there is a need to abolish colonial constructs and bring in policing bodies based on service to the public.
[i] Gachane, N. (2018). Calls for justice at burial of slain Leeds student Carilton Maina. Daily Nation. Retrieved from: https://www.nation.co.ke/counties/muranga/Calls-for-justice-as-slain-Leeds-student-buried/1183310-4914098-k3xuqa/index.html
[ii] Ombour, R. (2020). Rights Groups Demand End to Kenyan Police Extrajudicial Killings. VOA Retrieved from: https://www.voanews.com/africa/rights-groups-demand-end-kenyan-police-extrajudicial-killings
[iii] HRW (2020). Kenya: Nairobi Police Executing Suspects. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/02/kenya-nairobi-police-executing-suspects
[v] Okinyi, M. (2020). I Am Yassin Moyo aged 13 – Killed By The Kenyan Police. International Commission of Jurists. https://icj-kenya.org/news/latest-news/311-i-am-yassin-moyo-13-killed-by-the-kenyan-police.
[vi] Kiplagat, S. (2020). Willy Kimani murder: Video of killing field to play in court. Nation. Retrieved from: https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Willy-Kimani-murder-Video-of-killing-field-play-court/1056-5302926-28bxk4/index.html
[viii] Sommer, H. (2007). The History of the Kenya Police 1885- 1960. Department of Coastal Archaeology.
[ix] The Economist (2018). A chilling story from Kenya. The Economist. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/international/2018/03/08/a-chilling-story-from-kenya
[x] See ^ above.
[xi] Elkins, C. (2005). Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.
[xii] Nyabola, N. (2018). Decolonise da police: How brutality was written into the DNA of Kenya’s police service. African Arguments. Retrieved from: https://africanarguments.org/2016/07/19/decolonise-da-police-how-brutality-was-written-into-the-dna-of-kenyas-police-service/
[xiv] #JusticeforSamuelMaina Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/Misskihoro/status/1266964108517179392
[xv] Ndungu, T. (2020). Kenyans protest after police shoot homeless man dead in Mathare. CitizenTV. Retrieved from: https://citizentv.co.ke/news/kenyans-protest-after-police-shoot-homeless-man-dead-in-mathare-334463/
[xvi] Hill, E. et. al., (2020). 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html